Political Action Committees: Still Whipping Boy of Campaign Reformers

Article excerpt

HATCHED with the post-Watergate revisions of campaign finance laws, modern political-action committees (PACs) continue to be the highest-profile lightning rods for public debate over US election reform.

But despite the growing relationship between the costs of winning campaigns and the amount contributed by PACs - the average winning campaign for the US House of Representatives spent $407,000 in 1990, one-half received from PACs - there is growing acknowledgment that the role of PACs is shrinking in the larger dialogue of reformist decisionmakers.

"The debate to abolish PACs is the most nonsensical debate in the modern era," says Larry Sabato, a professor of government at the University of Virginia who has written extensively about PACs. "If we abolish them, industry, labor, and trade groups will merely find other ways of using their influence."

"Cleaning up the PAC system is not enough by itself," says Susan Manes, vice president of issues for Common Cause, the Washington-based citizens interest lobby. "If we want a more representative government, we have to deal with the entire spectrum of influence money," she says. That includes campaign-spending caps, controls on "soft money" (that which skirts technical boundaries), and finding ways to give challengers even footing.

Those behind PACs say they have brought the average citizen into the political arena; they have shut out the millionaire contributors of old (by limiting individual contributions to $1,000); they have spotlighted the sources of candidate money and kept it traceable over time.

Those against say PACs have corrupted the political process with undue influence from special interests; they have heavily favored incumbents while excluding challengers; they push agendas that shortchange the disenfranchised that have no PACs to represent them.

As the elections of 1992 approach, two congressional bills have passed Senate and House votes that would kill or limit PAC spending, provide public matching funds to candidates, and subsidize political mailings. But both face further debate, virtually certain veto by President Bush, and possible Supreme Court rejection.

"Both these bills will be dead on arrival," says Sen. Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky, an outspoken critic of PACs. "People don't understand what PACs are, but they know they don't want taxpayer money going into campaigns." There will be no campaign finance reform in 1992, he promises.

Cries of corruption had paralleled the meteoric rise of PACs from 608 in 1974 to 4,172 in 1990, with contributions growing from $12.5 million to more than $159 million in the same period. In the last election, PAC money accounted for half the revenues received by winning House candidates and nearly one-fourth of that received by winning senators.

But for the first time, in 1990, the average cost of a House race declined from $269,000 to $262,000. And concern over PAC growth may have reached a plateau, experts say.

"It is not as fashionable for corporations to be creating PACs in the 1990s the way they were when they were hot in the 1970s and 1980s," says Josh Goldstein, project director for the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

The greatest concern about PACs today, these same experts say, is the power they give to incumbents. Of the $110 million in PAC contributions that went to House candidates in 1990 elections, more than $89 million went to incumbents and only $7.6 million to challengers. That statistic favors Democrats because more Democrats are incumbents, and because labor unions - one major segment of the PAC community - give overwhelmingly to Democrats.

"With all the voter discontent about Congress," adds Mr. Goldstein, the 1990 election sent "over 96 percent of incumbents back to office."

But, as Mr. Sabato points out, "the same biases are apparent {toward incumbents} in contributions from individuals . …